With soldiers dying and being maimed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is more focus on Remembrance Day. The numbers of people wearing poppies has grown and it’s become compulsory for politicians and television presenters to wear them in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day. When I was a young politician, many of us used to wear white poppies in order to remember those who have lost their lives in the terrible wars of the 20th century, as well as the more recent wars, but also to stress that peace would have been preferable and would have saved the lives of our own young people as well as those they fought. This year I could not find a white poppy anywhere until I went to Carr’s Lane Church to give a talk to the United Reform Church Peace Fellowship. There at last I was able to find a white poppy and to wear it with pride.
Cities Alliance and slum dwellers in Africa
I have been very busy in the last few weeks and therefore have not attended to my blog. I visited Mexico City from 14 to 18 November for a meeting of the Cities Alliance. It is a set of partnerships led by the World Bank urban section and UN Habitat Representatives of local government, slum dwellers, developing countries and countries interested in development are all in membership. For ten years it has made small grants to support better thinking about city development and slum upgrading. It has now come of age and has established a new constitution and a new determination to work together on the ground for better urban development and improved life opportunities for slum dwellers.
In particular, it was agreed that we should make a major effort to improve collaboration in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is less urbanised than any other continent but is now urbanising fast. This creates an opportunity to get things right and not have to come back in 20 years to try to improve life in desperate, sprawling slums. We have learned lessons from Latin America and South Asia had hoped to apply them in Africa. The prize will be better life for urban dwellers but also improved economic development; cities are always the centre of economic production and growing cities provide a market for agricultural produce, which can lead to improvements in productivity and improve life chances for rural populations. The meeting agreed to prioritise Africa which is an important opportunity.
Whilst there I was given a tour of housing development in Mexico City. This was very encouraging. Mexico City has stopped growing and is now in the process of improving housing provision and trying to ensure that low income people can live in the centre of the city and not just on the outskirts. They are providing an attractive example for other cities.
Nawal El Saadawi
On the eighteenth of November I made my way to Brighton to chair a meeting organised by New Way with Words South. This famous Egyptian writer who is now in her early 80s has written more than 40 books. She is a feminist, a writer and an activist. She originally trained as a doctor who was also active in demanding an end to colonial rule and opposing the British/French/Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956. She is an uncompromising feminist who demands changes in law and practice in the Arab world so that women can have equality and dignity. She was imprisoned by President Sadat for calling for an end to the one-party state. More recently she has been placed on death lists by Islamist fanatics. It perhaps tells us a lot about real public opinion in the Arab world that her books sell in their millions. In Brighton she was as feisty and brave as ever, there was a great turnout and we had a deep and enjoyable discussion. I think we all went away a little more certain that if we stick together we could bring an end to the foolish western policies that are causing a growth in ugly, Islamist fanaticism.
Lancaster University’s first annual UNESCO Chair in Gender Research lecture
Prof. Sylvia Walby, who is the UNESCO Chair in Gender Studies at Lancaster, worked closely with me in the early 90s when I was shadow Minister for Women. She brought together academics to outline their findings and thinking on all aspects of policy regarding the status of women. We had some wonderful seminars and the best of academic thinking influenced Labour Party policy.
She recently invited me to give the first in a series of annual lectures. Mine was entitled Do Women think Differently about Foreign policy? I asked whether the achievement of women’s activism and women scholars in challenging and delegitimising violence and rape within the family, could teach lessons on how to build the Culture of Peace that UNESCO set out to achieve rather than the Culture of Violence that dominates current foreign policy thinking.
This weekend I have been in Birmingham catching up with friends and visiting relatives in hospital. The weather is bitterly cold but I still find the seasons moving and attractive. The frost is spread across pavements, grass and bushes and is a precursor of the snow that is yet to come to our part of the country. It somehow makes being warm and snug at home even more cosy.